Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Rowland Odgers (1914–1985)

by Derek Drinkwater

This article was published:

James Rowland Odgers (1914–1985), public servant and author, was born on 9 August 1914 in Adelaide, youngest of three children of South Australian-born parents Matthew John Odgers, engineer, and his wife Lilian, née Edwards. Educated at Thebarton Public and Adelaide Technical High schools, Jim joined the South Australian Public Service as a clerk in January 1930. He served successively in the Police Department and the Adelaide Local Court while undertaking part-time accountancy and secretarial studies. In 1937 he transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra as a Hansard reporter. Rapid promotion followed, to the posts of clerk and accountant of the joint-house department in 1939 and to clerk of papers and accountant in the Senate in December 1942.

As a Senate officer, Odgers found his vocation and never looked back. In August 1944 he became clerk of records and assistant-clerk of committees and, in May 1950, usher of the Black Rod and clerk of committees. He was promoted to second-clerk assistant in December 1954 and clerk-assistant in July 1955. Appointed deputy-clerk of the Senate in March 1964, he became clerk of the Senate on 16 August 1965, a post he held until his retirement on 8 August 1979.

In 1955 Odgers visited the United States of America to study the Senate and its committees; he recommended that a similar system be established in Australia. Eventually this occurred, with the appointment in 1970–71 of seven legislative and general purpose (and five estimates) committees. As secretary to the Standing Orders Committee, and with strong cross-party support, Odgers actively participated in this major reform, which transformed parliamentary scrutiny at the Federal level.

Early in 1964 increasing demands on the Senate and the House of Representatives departments led to a review of their organisational and staffing arrangements, which had remained largely unchanged since 1901. Odgers conducted the Senate review, and the government implemented his proposals. According to Gordon Reid and Martyn Forrest, it was ‘an important landmark in the history of parliamentary administration’. Also in 1964 he served as secretary to a committee appointed by government senators to inquire into the format and contents of the annual appropriation measures. Its report resulted in far-reaching procedural change—the ‘1965 Compact’—that determined the future make-up of the two categories of appropriation bills.

During the events leading to the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, Odgers strongly supported the right of Opposition senators to block Supply. Forthright in proclaiming the Senate’s raison d’être and powers, he defended them from much ill-informed criticism which, after 1975, often amounted to little more than impassioned diatribe. He insisted that its constitutional power to defer or reject Supply in the face of a government’s gross mismanagement or incompetence made it ‘the watchdog and the safety valve of the Australian federal system and of the nation’. Yet he was careful to avoid controversy, which might harm the Senate and its department. He took wry comfort from the fact that all political parties had at one time or another accused him of partisanship in his advice—to him a sign that he had done his job properly.

Odgers also shaped Australian parliamentary practice through the writing of the definitive Australian Senate Practice (known as ‘ASP’ or ‘Odgers’). Five editions (1953, 1959, 1967, 1972 and 1976) appeared during his lifetime and a sixth, on which its author had done substantial work, in 1991; the thirteenth edition was published in 2012. Appointed CBE (1968) and CB (1980) he was arguably the Senate’s most influential clerk.

On 2 January 1939 at St Paul’s Church of England, Adelaide, Odgers had married Helen Jean Horner, a typist. His work on Australian Senate Practice absorbed much of his spare time for thirty years, but he enjoyed golf and lawn bowls. Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, he died on 30 July 1985 at his home in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliament 1901-1988 (1989)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 8 June 1979, p 3003, 20 Aug 1985, p 24
  • National Times, 25-30 Apr 1977, p 11
  • Canberra Times, 9 June 1979, p 2, 31 July 1985, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Aug 1985, p 5
  • R. Linford, interview with J. Odgers (typescript, 1985, National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Derek Drinkwater, 'Odgers, James Rowland (1914–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Odgers, 1961

James Odgers, 1961

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L39229

Life Summary [details]


9 August, 1914
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


30 July, 1985 (aged 70)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.